Thomas Paine - Agrarian Justice (1)


Whether that state that is proudly, perhaps erroneously, called civilization, has most promoted or most injured the general happiness of man, is a question that may be strongly contested. On one side, the spectator is dazzled by splendid appearances; on the other, he is shocked by extremes of wretchedness; both of which it has erected. The most affluent and the most miserable of the human race are to be found in the countries that are called civilized.

To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man; such as it is at this day among the Indians of North America. There is not, in that state, any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets in Europe. Poverty therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state. On the other hand, the natural state is without those advantages which flow from agriculture, arts, science, and manufactures.

The life of an Indian is a continual holiday, compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand it appears to be abject when compared to the rich. Civilization therefore, or that which is so called, has operated two ways to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would have been the lot of either in a natural state.1

Paine begins Agrarian Justice by saying that civilization is a misnomer for societies which are built on extreme inequality and human misery. That's why I introduced the term inverse-civilization to differentiate between societies built on agriculture that are truly civilized (e.g. the Indus Valley Civilization) and ones that are clearly not (e.g. Nazi Germany).

It is a position not to be controverted that the earth, in its natural uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race. In that state every man would have been born to property. He would have been a joint life proprietor with the rest in the property of the soil, and in all its natural productions, vegetable and animal.[1]

I contend that humans collectively own the material universe (assuming there is no intelligent alien life) and must democratically choose how to allocate resources.

Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated land, owes to the community a groundrent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds; and it is from this groundrent that the fund proposed in this plan is to issue.[1]

Many modern basic income advocates support funding basic income using land tax with the argument that basic income funded by land tax is indemnification for undemocratic dispossession.

It is proposed that the payments, as already stated, be made to every person, rich or poor. It is best to make it so, to prevent invidious distinctions. It is also right it should be so, because it is in lieu of the natural inheritance, which, as a right, belongs to every man, over and above the property he may have created, or inherited from those who did. Such persons as do not choose to receive it can throw it into the common fund.[1]

Basic income means the richest and poorest person both receive the same basic income cheque. Basic income is not means-tested by definition. Redistribution schemes that are means-tested are easily abused to maintain poverty and keep people under the control of slave-makers. Additionally, basic income (which is not means-tested) means people are not penalized for working harder and gaining more income.

It [indemnification for dispossession] is not charity but a right, not bounty but justice, that I am pleading for. The present state of civilization is as odious as it is unjust. It is absolutely the opposite of what it should be, and it is necessary that a revolution should be made in it.[1]

Paine says that "[t]he present state of absolutely the opposite of what it should be". Perhaps that's because Western "civilization" is actually inverse-civilization.

The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together. Though I care as little about riches, as any man, I am a friend to riches because they are capable of good. I care not how affluent some may be, provided that none be miserable in consequence of it. But it is impossible to enjoy affluence with the felicity it is capable of being enjoyed, whilst so much misery is mingled in the scene. The sight of the misery, and the unpleasant sensations it suggests, which, though they may be suffocated cannot be extinguished, are a greater drawback upon the felicity of affluence than the proposed 10 per cent. upon property is worth. He that would not give the one to get rid of the other has no charity, even for himself.[1]

It is only by organizing civilization upon such principles as to act like a system of pullies, that the whole weight of misery can be removed.[1]

Further reading:
Thomas Paine - Agrarian Justice
French Republic Constitution of 1793
François-Noël Babeuf
Thomas Paine

  • 1. Paine, Thomas. Agrarian Justice., 1999, Digital Edition, Accessed 26 Mar. 2017.